As far as gardening in the traditional sense goes, the soil here is terrible. Thick, heavy, black swamp clay, it's dense enough to hold water for days, sometimes weeks. In rainy weather the mud gets deep enough and strong enough to suck the boots right off your feet, and in times of drought the ground dries up and cracks, dense and hard as concrete, and about as easy to put shovel into. I say "gardening in the traditional sense," because none of this is to say that nothing grows here. Plenty of things do. Driving down my street in high summer, for example, you would be forgiven for thinking that you'd maybe made a wrong turn into some far-flung corner of the Amazonian rainforest. The greenness of this place is one of the things I absolutely love about it. I'm surrounded by wildness, and it's glorious.
The trick, then, has been changing my perspective. Every garden I've worked on before was either urban or suburban. Even my mother's garden, though rural, had thirty years of soil amendments added and was fairly easy to deal with. Amend, mulch, done. You could get pretty much anything exotic to grow without a lot of effort.
Camellias, for example.
So, after moving out here to the middle of the Atchafalaya bottomland and spending the first couple of years trying (and mostly failing) to cram exotic plants with vastly different needs into an environment for which they were utterly unsuited, I decided to start investigating the possibility of replacing some of those exotics with native species. Besides saving a ton of money I'd otherwise have spent repeatedly replacing exotics that either failed to thrive or just outright died, natives have the advantage of requiring little to no supplemental irrigation. And in some cases, all I needed to do was simply move plants that were already growing right under my nose!
Case in point: every year, including this one, I rush out to my local garden center and scoop up loads of tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) to plant in my butterfly garden, the goal being to provide monarchs and other butterflies the nectar they need for their various migratory journeys. The plants start out in spring looking beautiful, but usually only last until around June or so, when they're so overtaken with aphids and so stressed by the heat and moisture that they look decidedly ragged and unattractive, if not outright dead. Then a couple of years ago I learned that there was actually a milkweed species native to my neck of the woods--aquatic milkweed (Asclepias perennis). I began seeing it at local farmer's markets and master gardener plant sales, but usually passed it up in favor of the flashier tropical variety.
One day, after noting that my tropical milkweed once again had kicked the bucket and needed to be replaced, I happened to look out into the horse field near my house, noticing clumps of white flowers here and there. Curious, I took a closer look and guess what I found growing as happily as can be in between piles of horse poop and soggy puddles?
Yeah. Aquatic Milkweed. Loads of it.
Needless to say I was out there pretty quickly with my shovel, digging up clumps of the stuff and transplanting it to other, more prominent places in my garden. This year I planted some just past the mailbox, and, perched on top of a big pile of thick, silky clay, it appears to be thriving.
So far it hasn't even shown any signs of transplant shock, so hopefully in time I'll have a lovely patch of white milkweed ready and waiting for the butterflies each year. I don't have to water it, it's beautiful and healthy all on its own, and it was free. Can't ask for more than that, can I?